Seventeen Years in the Making, Federal Auto Database Debuts

Don't get stuck with a car that's been wrecked

I once bought a used Nissan Altima from a dealership, only to find out later the car I bought was actually a former rental.

I wasn’t happy, because I know how rental cars are treated. Within months, the rear bumper began changing colors, and I dumped the Altima right away. That was in 2002, 10 years after the U.S. Justice Department was ordered by Congress to create a national database to show which vehicles were involved in thefts or other incidents.

Maybe had that database been in effect, I could have known the history of the Altima.

Now, almost 18 years after the order, the database finally exists. The Detroit News reports:

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, created by Congress in 1992, has 77 percent of all motor vehicle title records in the United States  more than 300 million vehicle identification numbers (VINs).

The system helps protect customers from unknowingly buying a car that was salvaged or scrapped in one state, but retitled in another state without the same designation like “salvage,” “rebuilt” or “flood.” Some cars that were flooded might get a salvaged designation in one state, but not another.

The national database will reportedly save Americans $4 billion to $11 billion per year in fraudulent claims. Experian claims there were 185,000 damaged vehicles in the first six months of 2008 that were retitled in another state, resulting in fraudulent clean titles. The Detroit News says more than one million vehicles are stolen each year and retitled in another state.

States can check the database when issuing a new title, and consumers and dealers can check a VIN for between $2.25 and $4.95 at (I think it’s irritating that a program funded with taxpayer money isn’t free, especially after waiting for it for almost 18 years, but it’s still a good deal and money well spent.)

I do wonder what the federal database will do to companies like CarFax and AutoCheck, which according to Consumer Reports, can miss reports of major damage.

But anything that can help the consumer, saving us money and stress, is good in my book.

Will you use the new federal database next time you buy a used car?


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  1. What is the story, I wonder, about why this took so bloody long to get up and running? I checked it out and it looks like a very good resource. Now, what are the DOJ and the DOT going to do to get the word out to people? That could be an immense (and expensive) challenge.

  2. Has anyone bought and seen a report from that new web site yet? I wonder how they compare to what you’d get from CarFax or AutoCheck.

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